Hooting at the moon

By Ralph Bates

Many of you may have seen the rare Supermoon earlier this month. There was a great picture of that moon on the front page of this newspaper. I had an unforgettable experience that night that I’d like to share.

About 6 p.m. I started going out onto our second story deck to try to see that moon as it came above the horizon. I had seen recent Supermoons but usually higher overhead and bright white or in shades of grey. Still a spectacular sight. This may be another opportunity to take time and heed the advice to “stop and smell the roses.”

Much to my dismay the moon was hidden by a tall and wide oak whose silhouette was itself a gift of this transformative annual celebration. While preparing dinner I would snatch moments here and there to go out to see the colors of the moon change even though their brilliance continued to be blocked by the old oak.

It was uncharacteristically cold that New Year’s day night, you may recall, so my visits weren’t long. But I did take time to see the stars come out knowing that many would be washed out by the moon’s brilliance. Ah . . . there’s Orion. Little did I know it would become the symbol of my quest that evening. Then I started to pay attention to the barking and howling of dogs and a couple of coyotes. A mockingbird was practicing singing to the moon later in the night.

A few more return trips after feeding the wood stove, eating and clearing the dishes revealed other night visitors getting ready for their version of the celebration. A screech owl off in the distance. Then a hoot owl a bit closer by. Then two. Then three. One of those was not far off. I had recently heard three forming a spatial and sort of harmonic triangle. Those I dubbed “The Three Tenors” in honor of Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras. Honestly, they were three distinct “owl-peratic” voices (excuse me, I couldn’t resist the play on their names).

The moon was now higher but not quite above the old oak so I listened closely for the owls. Braving the cold, I made a decision: I would try to start a chat with the closest owl. Sounds bizarre. I wondered if I could come close to imitating that magnificent creature. Enough to get its attention. At worst it would break into a silent owl laugh at my presumptuousness that I could imitate and fool so wise an animal. But none of the neighbors would know I was being laughed at even if they were listening to this imposter out on his deck “hooting” at the moon. So why not give it a shot.

So, in my best “hooting” voice I repeated the call of that owl. Each time I paused to await a response. A few seconds passed and it called out again. I had no idea if it was responding to me. It could have been responding to the other owls in the “owl hood” that evening. So I called again. And then again after a due pause. Each time it responded. Owls do get into a cadence so I still wasn’t sure what, if any, result there would be. Then there was a longer-than-usual pause. My breathing shortened in anticipation of some sign of movement. There. It sounded like it had moved a bit closer.

Mind you, that may have been a false hope since owls and singing birds seem to throw their voices from the same perch giving a movement perception. But I was hopeful. Another call by me. A longer pause. It seemed to be moving toward the left and the rising moon still partially hidden by the oak. So I turned my attention in that direction. Silhouetted about 30 degrees to my left I was astounded to see a huge black bird form making its way closer. It landed at the top of a tall evergreen about 75 yards from our deck. I was in awe and hopeful that our conversation was being taken seriously and it would respond.

It hooted. I waited a bit and returned its greeting. Pause. Its next line. Pause. Mine. And on it went for just a bit longer before I got too cold and flew off. Certainly, if I had hooted much longer it would have hooted a goodbye, saying: “I know you’re not one of us, but I appreciate getting to know you. Happy New Year!”

Turns out “she” hooted a while longer then went off and joined a male Great Horned Owl whose “hoot” is more “baritone” while a female’s is a bit more classical tenor. I later heard them chatting and laughing about the encounter with a human owl caller.

If you want to know more about Great Horned Owls and hear their calls, go to: www.allaboutbirds.org.

The writer hoots in Huntly

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